Lucy (2014)

lucy1I like ideas. I support ideas. I want movies to explore ideas both visual and philosophical. I also like action. I support action. I want movies to blow my mind with action either smart or stupid. It even like action and ideas together in the same movie. Give me an Inception or a Terminator 2 with clever action and intriguing ideas. And give me a Die Hard or a Mission: Impossible, short on themes but with awesome action scenes. Just don’t give me Lucy.

Lucy has ideas, and it has action, but neither of them carry much weight. Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a student in Taiwan, who falls in with a bad dude and ends up a drug mule for a rich businessman. The drug his gang is pushing is a new and blue powder, and their business model is to sew packets of the drug into their mules’ abdomens and send them around the world with fake passports. Lucy gets this treatment, but an accident causes the drug to leak into her blood. And, as so often happens when one overdoses, Lucy starts gaining gradual control of her entire brain.

lucy2It’s a ridiculous premise, but an intriguing one. I’d love to watch a movie about someone who uses more than 10% of his or her brain. Think of the potential. A director could explore how that character’s emotions and empathy expand. They could parse through interesting ways the character takes advantage of their growing intelligence. I want to see that movie, and if it happens to have some action in it, all the better. Lucy isn’t that movie.

It’s not spoiling anything to tell you this, because it’s all over the trailer, but Lucy‘s way of handling this premise is to give Lucy telekinesis and the ability to exist outside of time (Sort of- it’s complicated, I think.). Again, it’s a ridiculous premise, and they handle it ridiculously, which would be fine, except director Luc Besson seems to think he’s handling it seriously. Knowing it’s a Luc Besson movie, you expect action scenes choreographed with the precision of a ballet. But nothing about any of the fight scenes or shootouts is creative or stimulating. All the chase scenes and derring-do between the Taiwanese gang and the police play fifth fiddle to Besson’s science-fiction themes, which are neither believable nor fun. You get the feeling Besson’s a doctoral student composing his thesis with a crayon.

lucy3I won’t ruin where Lucy ends up going, though part of me wants to do so in order to spare you agony of expecting anything great. Lucy started out frustratingly strong and promising, but as soon as Lucy absorbed the drug into her bloodstream, she basically became a robot, and I lost interest. It’s a waste of Scarlett Johansson’s range not to explore what expanding Lucy’s control of her brain would logically do. There’s a scene in the middle of the film that has Lucy’s cells leaving her body, causing Lucy to begin to disintegrate. It’s one of the worst scenes in the movie, made all the worse by the illogical way Besson decides to resolve it. But watching her cells float off into the air, I thought, there goes the action, there go the ideas.

Quick Take: Philomena (2013)

philomenaIf it wasn’t a universally agreed upon opinion before, Philomena should end all discussion about how great an actor Judi Dench is. As Philomena Lee, an unassuming Irish woman who enlists the help of an out-of-work journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to find the son she gave up to the Catholic church when he was a toddler, Dench is powerful. Coogan is great too, though you get the feeling he’s getting a boost from Dench simply because she’s that good. Their chemistry drives the movie, which is at its best when the two of them are engaged in some conversation, whether it’s about the plot of the romance novel Lee is reading or about whether God is real or loving. This is a fascinating story, but director Stephen Frears’s (High Fidelity, The Queen) movie is unambitious enough that you wonder whether or not you should have just read the book. But Dench and Coogan as an odd couple are worth an hour and a half of your time.

Quicker take: Come for the awards attention, stay for the stars.

Quick Take: Computer Chess (2013)

computerchessAfter watching this movie, I bought a chess app on my Kindle and stayed up till 2:30 am losing to a computer. It’s funny, because very little chess is actually shown in Computer Chess. Instead, it’s about 1980s programmers competing to see who can create the smartest chess program, and we see far more of their interactions than the games in which they pit their programs against each other. Director Andrew Bujalski, known best for movies that helped kickstart the mumblecore movement (for better or worse), ends up exploring artificial intelligence in clever and unexpected ways.

Quicker take: Programming nerds pit their intelligence against the artificial kind in black and white.

One Year of Winnie

Winnie girlThe title of this post is misleading, since we’ve only had Winnie girl for about 10 months. But she turned 1 year old this week, so I wanted to commemorate the day of her birth with a post of 6 observations. Every 6 months I’ll post 6 more. We’ll see if that actually happens.

 

  • Winnie is a better dog with a backyard. We moved to a duplex in May. Our apartment before this didn’t have a backyard. I wouldn’t say Winnie was a terror in our old apartment, but I also wouldn’t say she wasn’t. In the duplex, Winnie knows to go to the back door to let us know she needs to go to the bathroom. She won’t grab things to chew nearly as often as she did in the old apartment. And she sleeps a lot more, because she gets to run around outside. Moral of the story: backyard is better than no backyard.
  • Winnie likes to watch television before bed. Sometimes while I’m watching a movie or a basketball game in the evening, Winnie will come sit next to me or on my lap after she runs around and plays. She watches the TV for about twenty minutes, then falls asleep. Winnie prefers NBA games and action movies.
  • Winnie snores when she sleeps. She gets this from her mother.*
  • Having a dog is just like having a kid. You worry about their safety constantly. You have to provide them with everything, because they can’t take care of themselves. And you clean up a lot of poop. Just like kids.
  • Having a dog is nothing like having a kid. You have to teach kids to do a lot more than sit, stay, and shake. Your worries about your dog’s safety aren’t that intense, because it’s not a part of you. And kids don’t chase bugs and chew them up, then leave them on the patio. I think. I don’t have kids yet.
  • Having a dog and having a kid at the same time must be hard.

*I’ll probably be in trouble for this one. But I’m keeping it in the name of honesty.

Trailer of the Hour: Whiplash

Why I’m pumped: Miles Teller is a great up-and-coming actor, and J.K. Simmons has always been the kind of performer that seems to not get as big a role as I want for him. Reading the press release for this movie was exciting, and the trailer showcases the incredible tension between the two lead actors. I’m ready for Whiplash to come out stat.

Why I’m worried: How do you sustain this premise over an entire movie? It sounds more like an appealing short film you stumble upon online. The pressure is on director Damien Chazelle to keep the whole movie as fascinating as this trailer.

Audience Award: Whiplash won this award at Sundance, so while this sounds like the kind of film that critics drool over and regular people avoid, past Audience Award winners have been real crowdpleasers. We can only hope.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

dawn2An ape rides toward you on a horse through a wall of fire while waving an automatic rifle in the air, screaming in an indecipherable tongue. There are two appropriate reactions to this moment. Considering this is a scene in a movie, clutching your hands to your mouth and screaming bloody murder isn’t a viable option. A more practical course of action, if this is an average film with an average hold on your psyche, is to smirk at the audacious cheesiness of it all. But, in this particular scene, the only response that makes sense is perhaps the least expected: to stare in disbelief that someone made a gun-toting chimpanzee on a horse into a legitimately intimidating spectacle.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t carry the same shock value goodwill as its predecessor. Rise of the Planet of the Apes outperformed all its expectations, in quality and financial success, because it had low expectations. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Dawn; a well-received first installment coupled with some awesome trailers raised the bar for the sequel. But even if we foresaw big things for Dawn, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a movie about monkeys with guns. It’s a premise with the potential to be as flimsy as snakes on a plane, and considering that there was already a movie (a classic, mind you) that made it work, it was hard to imagine lightning, you know, doing what it’s not supposed to, yada yada yada.

dawn1But the trick of Dawn is that you don’t notice the tricks. Somehow, some way, they convince you to process this movie as if the apes held just as much import as the humans. Part of it is the CGI meshing seamlessly with the real-life actors and locations, marking a huge landmark for the actors and the technicians involved with the motion capture magic behind the images. I’ll bet if you held up a picture of Caesar next to a picture of a real chimpanzee, you’d pick out the real one in an instant. But in this movie, there was never a moment that I even thought about whether or not Caesar was a real chimpanzee. This isn’t the first movie to use the technology, but Dawn may be the first to really harness it for the good of the story.

And what a story it is. Seeing Rise isn’t necessary to enjoy Dawn, but it may help you to feel more connected to Dawn’s main character. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the chief chimp of a massive family of apes living in the woods outside San Francisco. They’ve built a good life for themselves. They live well off the available food in the woods. The older apes teach the younger apes sign language and an ethical code of sorts. But conflict comes in the form of a group of humans who have ventured out San Francisco trying to reach the nearby dam in order to bring electricity to the community they’ve forged from what remains of the city. This group is led by the compassionate Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke. Gary Oldman is the human community’s other leader back in San Francisco.

dawn3The trailer makes Oldman look like the villain, but Dawn is a smarter movie than that. The screenplay wisely skips over the theme that humans are their own (and the world’s) worst enemy; the original Planet of the Apes nailed that one. Instead, Dawn magnifies one of the original’s smaller themes: that corruption may be part and parcel of being a sentient being. The original explored this thought in the nuances of how the ape society’s government and religion are kept afloat through lies and false constructions of their history. Dawn centers this theme on the tenuous friendship between Caesar and another chimp, Koba (Toby Kebbell). Humans experimented on Koba, and he understandably has a chip on his chimp shoulder. But where you may expect this conflict to go is only the beginning of what ends up amounting to a tragedy.

It all ends with an explosive action scene. That isn’t a spoiler, since this is, after all, a Summer Blockbuster. But, like the other great SBs of the year so far (X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, which are also, alas, sequels), the action is awesome not only because it looks cool, dude, but because it hinges on several key choices by smart characters we’ve come to love, choices with implications beyond their own onscreen stories. It’s these shades of moral quandaries that director Matt Reeves allows to color his CGI-heavy that help make Dawn arguably the best Summer Blockbuster of an increasingly long summer. And it’s the fact that Reeves has made a movie that allows me to put “moral quandaries” and “gun-toting chimpanzee” in the same review that elevates Dawn to one of the best movies of the year.

*I know apes and monkeys aren’t the same thing, but can we at least agree that we don’t differentiate between the two in everyday conversation?

Trailer of the Hour: Unbroken

Why I’m pumped: If the story outlined in this trailer sounds too outlandish to be true, I don’t blame you. After all, how could this many things happen to one person? But the story is true. Louis Zamperini had an incredible life. I would love to see a great movie about him. And there are moments in this trailer that took my breath away: the moment the water gushes into the plane; Louis’s face as he defiantly stares the Japanese officer in the eyes; his scream of “Hit me!”. Jack O’Connell looks to have a breakout role in the small amount of footage we’re given here. Trailers obviously show all the best parts, but it’s a good feeling to leave a trailer with the thought that you’ve only scratched the surface.

Why I’m worried: It’s directed by Angelina Jolie, which isn’t a problem in and of itself. But her last movie, In the Land of Blood and Honey, wasn’t well-received. I never got past the preview of that one, and I didn’t mind. However, I have heard that the problems with that movie had little to do with the directing. And what we see in this trailer looks exciting and as if Jolie has a good eye for arresting visuals.

Burn after writing: The Coen brothers worked on this screenplay. Mm-hm. Yep. Nothing to see here.